Abraham Lincoln has been dead for almost 150 years, yet suddenly he’s everywhere. At the Skirball Cultural Center, you can see an original copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, signed by Lincoln, amid an impressive array of founding American documents. The Huntington Library is host to two stunning and deeply engrossing Civil War exhibitions, “A Just Cause: Voices of the Civil War” and “A Strange and Fearful Interest: Death, Mourning, and Memory in the American Civil War.” And on screens everywhere, there’s Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”
After visiting the exhibitions, watching “Lincoln” was almost surreal — photographs I had just seen and documents I had just read came to life. Daniel Day-Lewis, for his part, seemed to embody Lincoln so completely at certain moments, it was as if he, too, were convinced he actually was Lincoln. At the same time, Spielberg’s Lincoln is portrayed in more personal and intimate terms than ever before on film: shown speaking to soldiers, to the war wounded, to family members and advisers; shown being both compassionate and passionate in his advocacy; and seeming something of a sly fox — always with a story, anecdote or joke at the ready to liven a room, make a point or close a deal.
After seeing the movie, I got to thinking about whether this Hollywood studio film, which was written and directed by Jewish-Americans (Tony Kushner and Spielberg, respectively), and which depicts the quintessential American as portrayed by Day-Lewis (whose mother is Jewish), is, in fact, a Jewish version of history in and of itself, a throwback to the days when Hollywood’s moguls, themselves Jewish-Americans, made movies about a seemingly non-Jewish America through the filter of their own very Jewish perspective.
Which raises the question: Has Spielberg given us a Jewish Lincoln? Or is it that Lincoln was “Jewish” in his temperament, values and actions: consumed by social justice in his fighting a war to abolish slavery; Moses-like in leading a people to freedom; talmudic in his use of disputation among a “team of rivals” to lead the nation; alternately morose and jovial (who doesn’t know that type?)? Add to all this that he died during Passover.
Set during the first four months of 1865, and centered on January, the month during which Lincoln lobbied the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment, the film depicts a Lincoln more human, more flawed than we have ever seen on screen. Spielberg and Kushner contrive to show where Lincoln may have overstepped his authority, suspending habeas corpus and acting by executive fiat, yet the president is allowed to argue in his own defense the legality of his actions. This Lincoln is driven to incorporate the prohibition of slavery into the Constitution because he knows the legal importance of that document and because he fears what will follow if he doesn’t accomplish this before the war ends. We also see Lincoln’s failings — as a father, husband and friend, as well as in his anger when it flares.
Compassion, charity and the pursuit of justice — these values, which we identify as Jewish values — are what inform the Spielberg-Kushner Lincoln: This is a president who seeks freedom for the slaves, who wants to heal the nation, is devoted to his young son, who visits the sick and mourns the dead. Sound familiar? While they might also be described as American values, even Christian values, it is unde